Neuroscience and the Museum Experience

Apr 17 | 0 comments

As the Peabody Essex Museum becomes the first art museum to appoint a neuroscientist to its staff, Hamish Robertson and Holly Mack explain why neuroscience – brain science – is so integral to the museum experience.

Important trends in museums include major increases in visiting and participation, as well as a diversification of the visitor audience, and rapid change continues to characterise the institutional museum experience. Museum programmes aim to be more accessible, engaging, interesting and relevant to an increasingly diverse audience, which may well include many non-traditional visitors including people with disabilities, the frail elderly, people with dementia, overseas visitors from newly emerging economies and so on.

Behaviour, emotions, memory
All these changes rely for their success on one of the most rapidly developing of interdisciplinary scientific domains – neuroscience, the study of the nervous system. This is a highly dynamic field that engages a wide variety of research and clinical practitioners ranging from neurologists to psychologists and more. Domains such as neuropsychology, neurobiology and neurochemistry are producing new findings relevant to museums because neuroscience focuses on the brain, the central nervous system and its correlates – including sensory perception, cognition, behaviour, emotions, memory, motor function and movement. In this context almost any innovation developed or implemented by a museum has neurological implications for its audience, as well as the neurosciences likely having a role to play in the processes of exhibition and participation.

Processing the museum experience
In the early days of neuroscience, the human brain was an object of study in anatomy museums – where concerns such as neurological disease progression or structural malformation were of scientific interest: think of the fascination for brain autopsies on the “great minds” of the last two centuries or the nineteenth-century obsession with phrenology. Today, however, “brain science” is integral to the museum experience itself. Firstly, the brain is the organ with which people cognitively and affectively process their museum experiences in unique, individual perspectives. It also controls their physical capabilities in terms of important factors such as: sight perception, hearing quality or noise tolerances, physical coordination and timing, as well as their movement speed or existing pain and comfort thresholds. Your visitors will vary hugely not only in terms of demographics and preferences but in their capacity to experience the museum and its contents based on their neurological capabilities.

A new strategic trend?
Museums such as the Peabody Essex Museum, near Boston, have already begun to hire or collaborate with neuroscientists in what looks to be a new strategic trend. This can only lead to new insights and directions in museum research and engagement. From this perspective museums are, in fact, working on a range of tasks that can be categorised as applied neurosciences: engaging people through an improved understanding of their individual neurological capacities. The various elements of neuroscience can help optimise the visitor experience, especially in the context of an increasingly diversified audience. Children, teens, adults and older people all have differing neurological advantages and limitations, meaning that their capacity to engage with and enjoy the museum can vary significantly. And the opening up of the museum to people with dementias, mental illness or physical disabilities arising through birth or injury, all involve a significant neuroscientific dimension.

The design of exhibitions, programmes and even amenities that rely on assumptions about physical, cognitive or sensory capacities (the old “normal”) needs to change. New technology, for example, means museums are engaging with the ICT sector in which disability access is an established consideration.

Improving the experience 
Many questions arise. Can our audience access this exhibition, programme or event in its totality or have we included elements that cater to particular variations in capacity? Have we considered the neurological variability of our audience? What can we do to improve the experience and account for our audience’s potential limitations or boundaries (in a capabilities sense, not in a pejorative sense)? Is our museum a space that engages with the neurological fundamentals of the visitor and the visitor experience?

So finally, we ask, have you begun to think about the implications of all this “new” neuroscience for your institution and its work?

About the authors 
Hamish Robertson is a geographer and the editor of The Caring Museum: New Models of Engagement with Ageing (MuseumsEtc, 2015). Dr. Holly Mack is an experienced researcher in biobehavioural health, ageing and dementia.



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